Fun with Vintage Saxophones:
Side Street Strutters Concert, 02/04/03
by Pete Hales
(Mr. Verdi and the contra - it's on a stool. Mr. Verdi's about 6-foot-3-inches)
I've had an on-and-off e-mail relationship with Mr. RJ Verdi of the Side Street Strutters for about six months now and I've always expressed my desire to come down to one of his concerts and take a look at his rare horns. On February 4th, I got my chance.
Now, anyone who's visited my website or the SOTW forum knows that I'm way more concerned about the instruments than the performance. Mr. Verdi brought three horns that I am incredibly interested in: a Conn-O-Sax (not used in the performance and not discussed here, but it's a beauty), a Dolnet curved Eb sopranino and, the horn I came specifically to see, an original Evette & Schaeffer (Buffet-Crampon) Eb contrabass.
Sopraninos have been around since the late 1880's or a little earlier. The straight variety was pioneered either by the Buffet-Crampon or the Rampone companies. The little curved horns were probably introduced by the Kalison company in the 1930's as a novelty item with skeletal keywork and a reduced keyed range (low B to altissimo Eb) - and extremely poor intonation. So, the first "real" curved sopraninos may very well be these horns labeled "Dolnet", made in the 1950s.
There is one hitch in the Dolnet connection: the horns were probably NOT made by Dolnet, but stenciled from a different company, probably Malerne, Beaugnier or Pierret. I think this because the keywork of Mr. Verdi's horn is somewhat different than that of other Dolnets of the same period and the serial number (24xx) doesn't correspond to Dolnet serial number charts or other Dolnets with similar features (sheet metal keyguards, etc.).
In any event, this Dolnet sopranino had fairly good heft, good tone and decent intonation - which I found quite surprising from such a little thing.
Mr. Verdi used the horn in a re-arrangement of Rudy Wiedoeft's Saxophobia and it was well received by the audience.
There is very little question that Buffet-Crampon produced the first contrabasses around 1920. There are a couple of other contenders for the title of "first", namely V. Kohlert's Söhne and Borgani (and a few others), but it's doubtful that surviving examples from these companies date earlier than those from Buffet. However, research is continuing and I'll be writing an article later on these horns when it all comes in.
(I mean "mass produced", of course. The first contra was designed by Adolphe Sax himself and exhibited in 1849, according to Dr. Paul Cohen in the spring 1984 edition of The Saxophone Symposium magazine.)
Here's the kicker: according to most reports, there are between 5 and 30 original contras still out there today, so seeing and hearing an original horn is a rare treat!
Mr. Verdi's contrabass (s/n 27xxx; approximately 1924) was a beautiful beast at one time, but someone savaged it with a can of gold spray paint. Mr. Verdi has been slowly stripping this horn with a variety of different things and is trying to get it back to its original, lustrous bare-brass finish. Mr. Verdi has succeeded with the bell and you can see the rather extravagant Carl Fischer (Buffet's US importer) engraving - an engraving style far more elaborate than most of the Evette & Schaeffer horns that I've seen from this era. Well, it's not like there's lack of room for the engraver to do his work!
We're talking about a huge hunk of hard rubber that's approximately twice the size of my Sigurd Rascher baritone mouthpiece - and that mouthpiece is larger than most period bass mouthpieces I've seen.
There are no markings on this contra mouthpiece and Mr. Verdi said that it came with the horn. I'm unsure if it's original, but it does seem to match the horn well and Mr. Verdi can play the horn pretty well in tune with it.
"Skeletal" would be a good descriptive term. The keyed range is from low Bb to altissimo Eb. It also has a single octave key, which is extremely uncommon even for these rare instruments.
The really beautiful thing about the contra is that you can physically see the keywork move, even at a significant distance away, when the horn is being played. That's an unintended, but nice feature. This is mainly due to the oversized keycups and widely spaced keyrods.
My main horn has always been baritone, but I've played a little bit of bass and played contrabass clarinet for about a year in high school. The contrabass sax has a much louder and fuller than both the bass saxophone and the contrabass clarinet I've played, maybe even put together.
During the performance, Mr. Verdi hit a low Bb on the contrabass and then I heard a lower note: it was the C tuba (he took a bow). It was approximately the same timbre and volume.
I have heard some of the Tubax horns (Konus/Eppelsheim's less expensive alternative to Orsi/LA Sax's modern contrabass) and the sound is much less full and much thinner. This is probably due to the drastic bore size difference or setup.
I've been impressed with contrabass performances since I heard the one on Professor Paul Cohen's Vintage Saxophones Revisited CD, but the contrabass there is used in a relatively sedate orchestral piece. Mr. Verdi featured it in a swing-style fast piece - after being directed onstage by a person using aircraft taxi flashlights (a nice touch).
The piece had the same general effect of Spike Jones's tubaist playing "Flight of the Bumblebee". Remember: according to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee shouldn't be able to fly, but the law of thrust states that the island of Manhattan can fly if you give it enough power. That's about the case with the contrabass J
Mr. Verdi told me after the performance that he had a split reed and still really hasn't mastered playing the beast, but the performance -- even for just one selection -- was satisfying for me.
The contra keywork really is too unwieldy to play really fast pieces, in my opinion. That may have been the conclusion that Konus/Eppelsheim came to, as well: they replaced the keyrods with ball bearings. The 6' 7" size is also a bit intimidating for most saxophonists: that may be reason that Conn decided to go with the Eb contrabass Sarrusophone and Konus/Eppelsheim completely redesigned the contra in the form of the much more compact Tubax.
The contrabass is definitely a "must see, must hear", as is the sopranino, and I'm happy to see Mr. Verdi performing on these rare instruments. It also helps that the Side Street Strutters are an extremely good and entertaining group. Makes me wanna go to Disneyland and see them again!
Modern equivalents to curved sopranino and contrabass are becoming much more popular today and can be obtained from a couple of different sources. I'm happy for this. One day I hope to see a full saxophone choir:
- Bb sopranissimo
- Eb sopranino
- Bb soprano
- C soprano
- Eb alto
- F alto and Mezzo-Soprano
- C melody tenor
- Bb tenor
- Eb baritone
- Curved F baritone
- C bass
- Bb bass
- Eb contrabass
- Bb contrabass (coming soon from Eppelsheim!)
If you or anyone you know decides to put together a group like this, please send me an e-mail. I'd love to see it!
Pete ("saxpics") Hales
P.S. Mr. Verdi is hunting for sources on where to get good contra reeds. If you have any ideas, please contact me and I'll make sure he's notified